How Has the Pandemic Changed College Admissions?
High school seniors are feeling the disruption of the pandemic as they tackle the college admissions process. How do we help them manage these uncertain times while they plan the next chapter of their lives? Special guest and New York Times bestselling author Jeff Selingo joins us to answer your questions about applying to college in a pandemic. Drawing on research from his brand new book, Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, Jeff explains what he learned while embedded with three university admissions offices. How do admissions gatekeepers decide who gets in? How can applicants stand out? Are schools doing away with the SAT/ACT? How much do grades really matter? How are universities changing their approach to admissions in light of the pandemic? Jeff answers these questions and more. For Children Everywhere - Girlstart inspires girls in STEM. Their mission is to increase girls’ interest and engagement in STEM through innovative, informal STEM education programs: www.girlstart.org For more on Jeff Selingo, check out https://www.jeffselingo.com/ Lisa's New York Times article about taking a gap year: Getting Into College Doesn't Mean Students are Ready to Go
November 17, 2020 | 28 min
Transcript | How Has the Pandemic Changed College Admissions?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 15: How Has the Pandemic Changed College Admissions?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: Lisa, it’s hard to imagine it’s already that time of year where parents and students are thinking about college applications.
LISA: I know. I know. Here we are.
REENA: It’s strange because these college visits that usually take place aren’t happening.
REENA: And how do you deal with school that’s really been disrupted, right? It’s interesting, we got a letter from a psychologist who was talking about the college admissions programs and saying that, I’m a psychologist and even these experiences are challenging all of my emotional resources, and someone sent in this question saying: ‘How do you manage our feelings of hopelessness and a fear to avoid putting those feelings on our seniors?’ And after what’s been such a difficult, as this person describes, ‘grief-stricken senior year.’
LISA: Oh man. That’s such a good question. So part of what I would say is how you manage it is you let us take care of your questions here in the Ask Lisa Podcast so that you can get a sense of peace, and when you have some peace about it, it’s much easier to help your kids have some sense of peace about it.
REENA: Yeah. It’s really hard to sort of figure out what the future looks like and also the next couple years, and these students have worked so hard to get to this point.
LISA: Yeah. It’s sort of you know all this work and all this run up and especially for the seniors there’s so much in the high school senior year that they’ve earned or they work toward or leadership positions or the achievement of certain long kind of sought goals that has felt hugely disrupted. One thing I do try to focus on and then, again, I’m aware this can feel a little silver lining pollyannaish away that’s off putting often to me when people are doing it in the pandemic, but what I do tell myself is, it’s not like the college admissions process was this perfect gorgeous thing last year. It was a system with a lot of problems in it. So more than anything I almost feel like we’re in those situations right now where it’s like the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t and so much of what I think is hard on families right now is they don’t know this system. Like however messy the old system was at least they felt like they had some understanding of it. Whereas now it just feels so confusing.
REENA: You know we hired a bunch of upcoming seniors over the summer when all the camps were closed in our neighborhood to help run camps for our kids, you know, for a couple of neighborhood kids, and these were bright promising girls who work so hard, some of them are on hoping for Lacrosse scholarships and you think about school sports that have been wiped out, you know, they’ve worked their entire lives in many cases on the sport, and you know where you go from here?
LISA: Yeah. Talk about having the rug pulled out from under you.
REENA: It’s again, back to that feeling of total hopelessness helplessness and complete fear. You’re kind of paralyzed and as a parent you’ve invested so much, and you’re like well now what?
LISA: Okay, so now what, Reena? We’re going to answer some questions.
REENA: We have a great guest to answer those questions.
LISA: So I am thrilled. This is actually our first guest on the Ask Lisa Podcast. We are so pleased to welcome Jeff Selingo. Reena, Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades. He’s the New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest book, Who Gets In and Why: a year inside college admissions just came out in September 2020, and it was actually named an editor’s choice book by The New York Times Book Review. In addition to doing all this awesome writing about college, Jeff also hosts the podcast ‘Future You.’ Jeff, welcome!
JEEF: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
LISA: We are thrilled.
REENA: We are thrilled, absolutely right. I have so many questions first off, and it we’ll get to it later in the podcast, but can they just get rid of the SAT and take the anxiety off of everybody in America, that’s one of my questions I want to get to later, but I guess when kicking off asking you you know how has this pandemic changed college admissions? Has it even changed college admissions?
JEFF: It definitely changed college admissions. I liken it as what’s happening with athletics right now with sports. You’re still playing in stadiums but the rules have changed to basketball and football and baseball. So in many ways my book describes the playing field that students are going to be entering, but some of the rules of change. The biggest one being test optional. More than 500 colleges and universities have gone test-optional since the beginning of the pandemic, meaning that they don’t require test scores for admissions, including the most selective colleges and universities and top-ranked colleges in this country. The second big thing is just getting to campuses, right? The whole college search, the going on college tours and sitting in information sessions and eating in the dining hall to try to figure out where you wanted to go, most of those things are canceled, and then of course there is the college application itself. The grades that you would get in high school, the activities you would participate in, all have of course changed, and the question now is how are admissions officers going to evaluate applications when students have had such uneven experiences over the last 10 months.
REENA: You talk about those uneven experiences. If they’re taking the testing out of it does it mean now your grades are weighted more? And especially if these extracurricular activities, like sports, are completely canceled, you were hoping for a sports scholarship on some level, if all of this is out and that doesn’t make you a better candidate, do you have to worry about your grades more now?
JEFF: Well in many ways you always have to worry about your grades. I know the parents don’t love to hear this, especially parents who pay for test prep, but grades and high school curriculum always mattered more than the test score, even at highly selective colleges. So I was embedded in three selective colleges for the book. All three require test scores, but the first thing they looked at when they look at a student’s application was the transcript, what courses did they take, did they take the most rigorous courses available to them and at that high school and then what grades do they get in those courses. They always look at that first before they even went to the test score.
LISA: Jeff, is that a reflection of grades as a measure of both work ethic and intellectual endowment? Whereas testing could just be a straight up measure of intellectual endowment?
JEFF: Yes. I mean you could really prep for the test, even the College Board admits that now. It is also growth over time. That’s really what they’re looking for. So they’re really looking for this idea that students haven’t peaked in high school and so they get a better sense of how students do, as they say, over four years of high school rather than four hours of a test. That’s really what they’re trying to see. What have you done your freshman, sophomore, junior, senior year? Are those grades on an upward trend? Are they consistent? Usually those are the two things they like. They don’t like grades that are spiky all over the place and they definitely don’t like a downward trend. So that’s really what they’re looking for.
LISA: I have to say that’s actually one of the most heartening things I’ve ever heard about college admissions. That idea of kids having time and space to demonstrate growth and development, and it makes sense to me because one of the rules we have in psychology is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So if you’re looking at a kid who has demonstrated that they are growing and gaining strength and gaining maturity, I can see why college admissions might put a lot of stock in that, and if you have a kid who’s all over the map, they’re like, eh this is a kid who might be all over the map when they get to college.
JEFF: Well and the other thing about the test score is that it doesn’t provide a strong enough signal sometimes to college admissions officers. For the most part it demonstrates that a they can take A, test and B, it’s been shown that it really only predicts freshman year grades at the college, where high school grades and high school curriculum really project what the student will do through four years of college. The other thing is that for the most students their test scores and their high school grades are well aligned, meaning if you have high grades you’re going to have a test score. If you have low grades, you’re gonna have a low test score. And the question really comes up is if you have high grades and low test scores, they’re going to wonder a little bit about the grading and if you have a high test score and low grades are going to wonder if you’re really working up to your potential in school. So most of the time what the test score is doing is just backing up what you already have done in high school.
LISA: Cool. Right now I could ask my questions the whole time but we have phenomenal questions that came from listeners. So let me start with this one, and it it falls into the category of like, how to stand out? So here’s the question: ‘I’ve heard that admissions officers are not impressed by work experience. The common wisdom seems to be that they would rather see kids involved in an activity rather than a job. This seems incredibly wrong to me, as kids who work are learning great responsibility and life skills. Is this actually true?’
JEFF: It could be true for some admissions officers. I mean part of the problem in college admissions is that we have thousands of colleges and universities, all of whom operate their admissions systems differently, but what from what I saw it’s not true. They actually comment usually when they see somebody has worked because it is so unusual now to have somebody have a job on their application.
JEFF: But where it is missing, and this is actually missing in a lot of parts of the application, is that students don’t give enough detail. They don’t tell what they’ve learned in that job. They may say they’ve worked X number of hours a week. They may say what the job is and and where it was, but if you’re working at Emory University, which was one of the schools that I embedded myself in, and you’re coming from Seattle and you make mention of a of a place you work there, they have no idea what that is. They don’t even know necessarily what the job is. So it goes back to this idea in the application that how do missions officers are not detectives. They have eight, ten, twelve minutes to review these applications. You need to tell your story, and if you learned critical thinking skills on a job. If you learn teamwork, if you learned the value showing up on time, whatever you feel like you learned in that job, make sure you tell them, or somebody else within your application tells them. A teacher or guidance counselor or somebody that would be giving you the recommendation.
LISA: That makes so much sense. Okay here’s another one, again on that kind of what are they looking for, how do we stand out, and this has to do with gap years, which I think a lot of people have taken on a whole new meaning in in this disrupted time: ‘My daughter is graduating a year early and plans to take a gap year. The original goal was lots of travel in Europe where we have a large extended family, but it’s hard to plan right now with all the travel restrictions and uncertainty of COVID. In general, what are the things that admissions officers would want to see from a gap year?’
JEFF: Well the gap year has definitely become more popular and it’s actually a subject I covered in my last book, There is Life After College, because I’m a big fan of gap years but I think there are three elements that are necessary components of a gap year that I think admissions officers will be looking for. One is that you didn’t totally disengage from academics. It is so easy now to take a course online, a Masterclass, Khan Academy, Coursera, edX, whatever it might be, you can easily engage in academics online and even in the gap year, make sure you don’t lose that muscle memory of being engaged in academics. Second is putting yourself in uncomfortable positions so that the listener asks about travel, which is a great gap year experience because it puts you in uncomfortable positions and you have to try to figure things out. They love that. So if you’re not going to be able to travel, find something else that will do that. Work is another good piece, and this may be the year to do that if you can’t travel, if you find some sort of job or some sort of volunteer activity. And then the third piece, and this is less for the admissions officers but more for the student, is to have some sort of mentor during that year because you’re kind of in between mentors and some ways. You don’t have your high school teachers or your high school counselors and you don’t yet have your college professors and your college advisors, so you need some sort of mentorship in that year so that you kind of understand where you’re going.
REENA: So interesting I remember when Malia Obama announced that she was going to take a gap year, I was like, what? The tiger mom in me, Jeff, was like, what are you doing, Malia? Get to Harvard! What are you doing? But it made me really rethink and what you said as well, this year. So many college students were forced, particularly freshmen, were forced to take that gap year and you’re thinking, how is that going to affect emissions next year when you’ve got all those people who may have deferred and are coming back starting freshman year? And then could there be freshmen who were taking gap years as well?
JEFF: So the thing about colleges and universities is that they really want to keep their overall enrollment pretty even. So yes, they are going to have it next year. They will probably have a lower than expected sophomore class and all those gap year students will come back, hopefully, and the freshmen but they’re not going to take the spot of this year’s high school seniors. Most colleges will actually increase the size of their freshman class because at the end of the day they want to keep that overall enrollment even. Now some colleges might say, you know what we don’t have enough room, we really value the the freshman seminars and we want small classes, but for the most part, especially now, colleges need the enrollment and they’re going to be looking for different ways of filling those seats that now will be empty in the sophomore class.
LISA: You know, Jeff, I too am a huge fan of the gap year and part that is for the maturity the kids often gain, and a while back I wrote a column and, Reena, we’ll put it in the show notes. I think the title was ‘Getting into college doesn’t mean kids are ready to go,’ and one of the things I’ve thought about for a long time, and when this doesn’t go well I deal with in my practice, is that the skills you need to graduate from high school are actually very very different from the skills you need to thrive in college and be an independent young person. So if more kids are taking a gap year because of the COVID, you know a pandemic, obviously this may not be what they want, but developmentally it may not be all downside.
JEFF: Right. And it also might show subsequent students that it’s OK. I think there is a view out there that gap years are you know for certain types of students but it’s not well established and I also thought after one of the Obama daughters took a gap year, I guess that was Malia, right that took it, I thought, oh wow now everybody will take one. Or more take one, and unfortunately I don’t think it increases the numbers necessarily because I think parents are afraid that if their sons or daughters get off the pathway to college they’re never going to go back and I cite this research in my last book. It’s been shown that students who take gap years and had plans to go to college, still go to college and they still graduate at the same rate as everyone else, it’s just a one-year difference and that’s okay.
REENA: Right. The two of you have changed my mind on a gap year, but just don’t tell my kids yet. They’re in elementary school. But you know, Jeff, I do wonder and so many people wonder and have the same anxiety I did about SATs and ACTs. What did you say, 500 schools have done away with standardized testing now?
JEFF: They’ve gone test optional. So they no longer require it as part of the admissions process, and many of them just for this year, so some will go back.
REENA: One of the questions here, it says, ‘Can you please ask Jeff, what advice does he have for kids applying to schools that no longer take the SAT, ACT. Put another way, what do you think that schools are going to zero in on now that standardized testing is gone? My assumption is that grades will be under even more scrutiny. What are the secondary variables? This is a tricky change for parents to really get their heads around.’
JEFF: So one of the things I think is going to happen is they’re going to zero in on high schools that they know well. Most of the selective schools, they don’t have the old feeder schools from the Northeast boarding schools they used to have, but they still have thousands of high schools that apply to them every year and hundreds that send bundles of applicants to them every year. And I think particularly this year, especially if they’ve used testing as a signal in the past, and with maybe missing grades and unsure of other things in the application because of cove it what I think’s going to happen, and in talking to admissions deans they tend to agree with this , s that they may start to accept a few more students from these different high schools that normally apply to them because they trust that those students can do the work. And that is a real issue, I think, if you’re worried about equity in admissions because most of these elite colleges have been trying over the last couple of years particularly to diversify their student body. If they go back to the high schools that have been essentially feeder high schools for them it is really going to slow down those efforts to to diversify their student bodies.
LISA: I hate that. Okay, Jeff, we’re just going to keep speed rounding you through these because we got such good questions. All right.
JEFF: Okay I’m ready.
LISA: Okay, here we go. A mother of a high school junior asks about extracurricular activities. Here’s what she says, ‘Would admissions officers rather a student participate in fewer activities but at a more significant level, versus a long list of extracurriculars at a very surface level. My daughter’s high school is very competitive, and it seems like all the students have rigorous classes in addition to participating in many clubs, activities, sports and extracurricular opportunities. It almost seems worse now that so much is available via Zoom. Students are signing up for seminars and taking college level classes online. Help. When do you say enough is enough? I would love to hear your advice.’
JEFF: She’s right in terms of the common application has 10 spaces for extracurricular activities, and I think most students feel that they have to fill in all 10 spaces. They don’t. College admissions officers are looking for commitment. They don’t want to think that, oh you were a junior in high school and suddenly decided, oh my god I have to start signing up for things because I’m applying to college. And they have these essentially sign-up clubs and they can see right through that. They see member, member, member, member or one-year commitment, one-year commitment, one-year commitment. That’s what they don’t want to see. They would rather a lot fewer of them but something that you actually committed to over a course of a couple of years. You also don’t necessarily need to be the leader of those. You don’t need to be the team captain, you don’t need to be the president of the club, so it’s okay not to fill in all 10 spaces on the common app.
LISA: Jeff, I’m so glad you said that because I think those 10 spaces can feel so daunting, and it’s so easy to make kids feel less than. So, I just personally and professionally, I really appreciate hearing that.
REENA: We also got a question from a mom in Los Angeles who says, ‘What do you do when your family isn’t wealthy?’ And she explains that they’re not a wealthy family. That do you do if your kid also, you’re not wealthy, they’re not getting straight As, is there a certain number of extracurricular activities you have to hit? And does that mean that you only can get into a certain kind of school at that point?
JEFF: Well the certain kind of school is interesting, right? There are thousands of colleges and universities out there, many of which are good academic, social and financial fits for many students. Not every student can go to a, nor should, go to a highly selective, top-ranked college. I think the best fit are colleges where you’re going to swim with the majority of students. You don’t want to be always trying to play catch-up and you certainly don’t always want to be ahead of everybody else either because you’re not going to be engaged in your studies. We, for some reason, we have this idea, especially in certain, most metropolitan areas and certain zip codes, in this country that, what that sticker that’s on the back of the family car is so critical. There are so many good colleges out there and so if you don’t get straight As, it doesn’t matter how many activities you participate in, you still probably are not going to get into these highly selective colleges, whether you’re rich or poor or middle class. But there’s a good fit for you out there. It just may not be a top 10 rank school and that’s okay. Students and graduates from schools all over the place get great jobs every year and have great lives. It’s okay that you don’t go to a U.S. News top 10 ranked school.
REENA: An interesting question, you know I notice that we’re doing well in Qatar and now I realize why after reading this mom’s question. She writes, ‘We’re U.S. citizens who have lived abroad since 2010. We left the U.S. when my kids were two and four. My daughters are now in grade eight and ten. They attended school in Qatar that follows the national core curriculum of Finland. My oldest daughter’s looking at colleges and universities around the world. I’d love to know what Jeff’s advice is in terms of doing a global search. I’m curious, should students be attending university in the U.S. as opposed to staying abroad? When I look at the fees in the U.S., it seems like universities, particularly in Europe, are just much better value.
JEFF: I mean there’s nothing that says that you have to attend college and university in the U.S. I mean clearly the U.S. has dominated global higher education for decades, but they’ve actually been losing international students in the last four years, and the global pandemic as those numbers have truly dropped, especially as other countries and other continents have improved their own education systems. A large part depends on where the kids might want to work some day. I mean usually it’s a little bit easier to get a job with U S. companies based in the U.S. coming from U.S. institutions, but obviously we’re living in a global economy, all that’s changing but I think the bottom line here is that the U.S. clearly has led in global higher education for decades, but that is no longer going to be true I think in the next ten or fifteen years.
LISA: That’s fascinating. All right, Jeff, one more question for you, and this one I think is right in the center of parents’ hearts, and I think often at the core of their worries about the whole college process. So here it is: ‘What’s the best way to support our seniors when they don’t get into a school that they were really hoping to go to?’
JEFF: So let me back up on that question a little bit because I think a lot of this has to do with the original list that someone puts together, and as I say in the book, the college list shouldn’t be left to teenage indifference. I think the list that you put together at the beginning of your senior year is critical because I think that sometimes students get too focused on one or two schools, quote unquote that dream school, and then they don’t get in, and there are other schools on that list that are great fits for them, but they they never kind of fell in love with because they were so focused on that top school. And so when you’re putting together your list I always tell students and parents to have a balanced list and even if you have it in priority order love number ten as much as you love number one, because there is not just one school for everyone. And in the end that’s how I think you can support your kids in telling them and how helping them understand that there are plenty of good schools out there for them that they’re going to thrive at a number of them and get away from this idea right from the beginning of the college search that there is only one school.
LISA: Man, that is awesome. I can’t tell you how much as both a psychologist and the mother of a high school junior I appreciate just the down to earth, straight shooting quality of your guidance. The book is Who Gets in and Why: a year inside college admissions, and you really did the work and got the answers that I think so many of us are worried about, and that’s a huge gift, and we’re really grateful for that.
JEFF: Well thank you. It was great to be here.
REENA: Thanks again, Jeff, so grateful to have you. Lisa, what’s your charity of the week For Children Everywhere?
LISA: Reena, I am so excited about this one. So this is an organization called Girl Start. It’s based in Austin, Texas and what they do is they promote STEM activities and interests for girls. And they do it in all these really cool ways. They have after-school programming and summer programming that is obviously local. They are in Austin and throughout Texas, and also a little bit in the Boston area, but they have an incredible website with really cool activities you can do at home with your girls and boys, and this organization has really been nimble in the pandemic and a huge percentage of the work they do is for underserved populations, and I just think they’re the coolest. So check them out, girlsstart dot org. Really really cool group.
REENA: It’s great that you can get that reinforcement now on STEM. I love it. So, Lisa, tell me what is your parenting to go?
LISA: So my parenting to-go, as I think about parents of high schoolers who are feeling really anxious about the college process, I want to second something that Jeff said, which I’ve long agreed with, number one, don’t get your heart set on a single school. That is one way to make this process much harder than it needs to be. But then the other thing that I find very useful to say to high schoolers, is to say focus on cultivating yourself. Your intellectual life, your creative life, if that’s where your interests lie in art, your athletic life. Focus on cultivating yourself. That you can control. The rest will sort itself out. The college process, there’s so many variables beyond your power. Focus on cultivating yourself. That’s where your energy should go.
REENA: For more information about Jeff Selingo, as well as the article that Lisa mentioned, check out our show notes, and be sure to follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at asklisapodcast. Next week’s episode, we’re gonna talk about dealing with the uncertainty over the upcoming holidays.